As they were striking the set in Atlanta, dismantling the satellite hookups and sitting bleary-eyed but jubilant for one last round of meetings, the Democrats who had convened here for the past week could only wait for their notices.
The first trip wires of public opinion suggest that until the final moments of the Democratic National Convention, the party's delicate strategy of trying to belittle George Bush, strike a non-ideological tone and embrace Jesse Jackson without offending moderates had not entirely succeeded.In her home state of Texas, for instance, the keynote address by state Treasurer Ann Richards may have bombed, prompting criticism that she had been too flip, insubstantial and unkind to the vice president, himself a Texan.
But the early signs also hint that Massachussets Gov. Michael S. Dukakis may have surprised and impressed millions of Americans, including a few Republicans.
The first barometers of American public opinion are not scientific, but they are distinctly American - from the letters to the editor trickling into newspapers, to the radio talk shows that pierce the night and morning, to the television pundits who, for better or worse, do help shape what Americans think.
"Even a hostile critic like myself," conservative television commentator Pat Buchanan conceded, has to give Dukakis "an A or A-plus. I've got to think George Bush is sitting somewhere tonight saying, `That was a very effective performance,' " Buchanan said on Cable News Network after hearing Dukakis' speech accepting his party's nomination.
It was effectively Dukakis' introduction to the nation at large, seen by some 50 million viewers on four different networks. And, apparently, many agreed with Buchanan: They liked what they saw.
The calls to Larry King's national talk radio show were running 70 percent in favor of Dukakis. "They were very impressed," King said in an interview. "They thought he looked presidential, and normally, the show is a pretty good read."
The first public opinion polls suggest that Dukakis could enjoy a bigger jump in the polls than is typical for a candidate after his party's convention.
A USA Today-CNN poll released Friday showed Dukakis leading Bush by 50 percent to 40 percent in a survey of 1,200 voters. A similar poll two weeks ago showed Bush leading, 47 percent to 44 percent.
That poll was conducted Wednesday and Thursday, so some respondents had not yet heard Dukakis' speech.
Candidates typically gain the most in polls, according to Los Angeles Times political consultant William Schneider, when their conventions are carefully scripted and free of surprises, as the Demo convention was.
"Boring is good," Schneider said. "Boring means the party has its act together. I'd say he'll show a pretty good jump."
The biggest jump in recent years came from Ronald Reagan's firmly run convention in 1980.
However, in Texas - where Dukakis' selection of Sen. Lloyd Bentsen as his running mate stands as a direct challenge to Bush, the state's adopted son - there are signs that the keynote address by Richards, the state's treasurer, was not popular.
Letters streaming into Texas newspapers after Richard's speech were soundly nega tive. Writers were particularly offended by the carefully directed Democratic strategy of ridiculing Bush with humor.
"What came out of Richards' mouth was crude oil and a real disservice to the Texas woman," wrote Anita Conzoneri of Fort Worth, home of House Speaker Jim Wright, in the Star-Telegram.
Roughly half the letters about the convention that have come into the Dallas Morning News so far have denounced Richards' speech, although a smattering were positive.
"Cliche Annie," one letter in the Houston Chronicle called her.
"They really disliked her attack on Bush, and they didn't like the fact that she didn't speak about issues," explained Cynthia Thomas, the editor who handles letters to the Houston Chronicle, which is devoting its Sunday opinion section to the issue.
"One thing's for sure," wrote Steve Crager from the generally conservative suburb of Bedford outside Fort Worth, "all the efforts they've made to persuade me to vote Democrat in November just went out the window."
In fact, several political media consultants Friday said they believed that the coveted swing voters _ those Democrats who voted for Reagan _ may not have been paying close attention to the convention. In Cleveland, St. Louis, Orlando, Fla., Nashville, Tenn., and elsewhere, letters haven't poured in about the convention as they have in past years.
"There just does not seem to be that much fire in the gut about this election," said Pat McCubbin, associate editorial page editor at the Cleveland Plain Dealer.
Television ratings, too, were down, particularly on Monday and Wednesday nights. In several markets, more people watched movies and reruns on independent stations than watched the Democrats.
Overall, ratings slipped just slightly from 1984, if one counts those who now watch the proceedings on cable news stations.
The impact of the party's treatment of Jackson is more complicated to measure.
Republican political consultant John Deardourf conceded that he thought even "militant black supporters of Jackson will come away from the convention aroused to support the ticket," and because Deardourf is convinced swing voters are not yet paying close attention, the impact of Jackson's role is still to be determined.
But on cable television's C-Span channel, which tends to have a conservative audience, the majority of the 272 viewers who called during the first three nights of the convention, before Dukakis spoke, criticized the governor's handling of Jackson.
Still, political professionals say the Democrats' favorable impression overall places added pressure on Bush to effectively manage the Republican convention.